What is it about eye contact that can make someone so uncomfortable? Or completely put them at ease? Well there are lots of things. Duration. Emotion behind the eyes. Timing. To name a few.
Lack of eye contact is one of the most tell-tale signs of autism. Apparently I was no exception as a child. I remember learning over the years that simply hearing, and verbally responding to, something that’s been said, isn’t enough. In other words, to feel heard, the person speaking needs to feel seen.
Autistic people have many reasons for lack of eye contact. If I’m not looking you in the eye as much as I should, there could be any number of reasons. You might have caught me when I was concentrating on something else. The most likely one, however, is simple: sometimes I forget. I know how eye contact works. It’s just something I have to consciously remember.
And occasionally, if emotions are running high, it is too much. As I’m often acutely aware of emotions anyway, looking in people’s eyes sends my ability to focus out of the metaphorical window. Or maybe I’m trying to hide my own emotions, usually resentment or tears. This is a common one for autistics and non-autistics alike.
Another reason, which I’ve yet to hear from anyone else, is that if someone is talking at length to me, I find it easier to take in what they are saying if I’m not looking into their eyes too much. Eye contact means involuntary communication. And that takes up concentration. But then people cannot tell the difference between when I’ve stopped listening and when I’m listening uber-hard. So I do need to work on that.
Which I am. When I’m not forgetting to make eye contact, I make a conscious attempt to give the look that shows I care, and encourages people to open up to me. Or if I’m trying to get a point across. As for playful banter, I’ve mastered eye communication to a T. Just ask anyone who’s ever seen my Hard Stare.
Even working in the bookshop has taught me more about the importance of eye contact. Just little things like catching a customer’s eye and asking them how I can help them (when I’m shopping, I keep my head down the whole time hoping the salesperson won’t notice me, but that’s just me). When I offer loyalty cards, people are much more likely to accept if I look them in the eye the whole time. And if nothing else, a quick glance between colleagues when facing a difficult customer signals: RED ALERT!
So am I just stating the obvious a lot of the time? Well maybe, to non-autistics. But that’s the whole point; eye contact formalities often aren’t second nature to people on the spectrum. At best, they’re learned behaviour. But then that isn’t obvious to people not on the spectrum. Which I why I write posts like this. Now look me in the eye and tell me autistic people can’t communicate. Go on, I dare you.
Come on, look at that face! Who wouldn’t want to make eye contact?